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Business News/ Politics / Remembering the Yom Kippur War in a Divided Israel
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Remembering the Yom Kippur War in a Divided Israel


Fifty years ago this month, the Jewish state survived a surprise attack by its Arab neighbors. Some veterans of the conflict see the country’s current political divisions as no less dangerous.

The Yom Kippur War shattered Israeli identity. Once confident in their leaders, Israelis suddenly distrusted them. Premium
The Yom Kippur War shattered Israeli identity. Once confident in their leaders, Israelis suddenly distrusted them.

Recently, while walking in a Tel Aviv park, I was approached by a well-dressed, elderly man who recognized me—I once served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.—and asked for a moment of my time. “Fifty years ago, I was a tank commander in Sinai," he began, “firing at enemy tanks only 10 yards away." Carrying his wounded to an aid station, he saw row after row of Israeli dead. “I see those bodies before me every day of my life."

He paused to compose himself and continued. “Returning to my tank, a religious soldier suggested that we say a prayer of thanks and, though I’m not observant, I agreed." But while praying, they were hit by Egyptian artillery. Miraculously he survived but everyone else, including that religious soldier, was killed. “I see that picture before me every day, too."

Tears welled in his eyes. “And now I wonder if our sacrifices were worth it." Referring to the turmoil triggered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his radical right-wing coalition, he asked, “Did all those young boys die just so our government could succeed where the Arabs failed and destroy the State of Israel?"

There was nothing unusual about the man’s memories. Tens of thousands of Israelis share them. They remember that Yom Kippur—50 years ago next week—when the blare of the shofar segued into the wail of air raid sirens and the tense farewells of reservists rushing from their synagogues to war. At precisely 2 p.m. on Oct. 6, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a massive surprise attack that broke through Israeli defenses in the Sinai Peninsula and atop the Golan Heights, inflicting hundreds of casualties. Both areas had been conquered by Israel six years before, during the Six-Day War, a victory so swift and total that the Arabs would never again dare to strike—or so Israeli leaders hubristically thought.

In fact, with almost unlimited Soviet backing, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Hafez al-Asad, father of Syria’s current dictator, resolved to break the status quo and, if possible, deliver a blow from which Israel would never recover. Assured by her generals that the Arabs were only bluffing and pressured by the Nixon administration not to launch a preemptive strike, Prime Minister Golda Meir waited until the last minute before mobilizing. It was too late.

The result was a conflict that, in terms of its scale and complexity, was almost unmatched in the post-World War II era. It involved not only some of the largest tank battles in history but the colossal airlifting of military supplies by the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. to the Arab states and Israel, respectively; an Arab oil boycott that nearly paralyzed the West; and a superpower showdown that almost ended in nuclear war. Finally, through deft diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger laid the foundations for peace between Egypt and Israel.

The war ended with the Israel Defense Forces surrounding the Egyptian army and arriving within striking range of Damascus. Israel would never again face a serious conventional military threat.

As an ambassador visiting the U.S. military academies, I learned that, rather than the Six-Day War, cadets studied how Israel changed its tactics in the middle of the Yom Kippur War and rallied from early setbacks. They studied General Ariel Sharon’s audacious crossing of the Suez Canal to cut off the Egyptians from behind.

In the national experience of Americans, the surprise attacks on Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor did not diminish the final victories in the Civil War and World War II. By contrast, Israel’s ultimate triumph in the Yom Kippur War brought no relief from its initial trauma. The images of paratroopers dancing in liberated Jerusalem in 1967, after the Six-Day War, would forever be tainted by those of Israeli prisoners of war, shell-shocked and ragged, in 1973. There was the sight of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the great hero of 1967, having a nervous breakdown on national television in 1973, and of Golda Meir publicly declaring, “We have never faced such a deadly danger."

And there were the repeated scenes of mothers collapsing over freshly filled graves. In three weeks, 2,656 Israeli soldiers were killed—proportional to the country’s population, three times the number of American deaths in the entire Vietnam War.

The Yom Kippur War shattered Israeli identity. Once confident in their leaders, Israelis suddenly distrusted them. Veterans of the war founded Peace Now to pressure the government to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Fearful that it would, religious Zionists established the Bloc of the Faithful to irreversibly settle Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The left-leaning Labor Party that had led Israel since its independence lost to the right-wing Likud, destined to dominate Israeli politics for 40 of the next 50 years.

Israelis felt betrayed by politicians who not only failed to prevent the war but later pinned the blame on the army. That perfidy was never entirely forgotten and, in the eyes of many Israelis, is now being replicated by the Netanyahu government.

“The Worst Crisis Since the Yom Kippur War"—so read many of the posters and T-shirts at the demonstrations that have convulsed Israel since January. The protesters, numbering several hundred thousand, have multiple grievances: the government’s appointment of racists and convicted criminals to senior ministerial positions; its earmarking of billions of shekels for unauthorized settlements and for ultra-Orthodox Jews, most of whom neither work nor serve in the military; its threats to women and LGTBQ rights; and its domination by a thrice-indicted prime minister. Above all, the demonstrators oppose the government’s plans to strip the Supreme Court of the powers which, they believe, serve as the last-ditch defense against laws that will transform Israel from a high-tech bastion of liberalism into an undemocratic, puritanical backwater.

Among the most activist protesters are veterans of the Yom Kippur War. “The soldiers of 1973 are fighting for the character or the country," one of their banners proclaimed. Several septuagenarians even tried to tow a tank from a Golan Heights memorial to display at demonstrations. In contrast to the war, they stress, the present threat is internal, and therefore even more existential. Like the elegant man who interrupted my walk, they are haunted by the past and fearful for the future. They are asking themselves what their sacrifices were for.

Each anniversary of the Yom Kippur War pitches Israel into paroxysms of mourning, and this year will be no exception. But, along with the sorrow, this Oct. 6 is also marked by fresh perspectives on the war. Newly released documents show that Israel tried repeatedly before 1973 to invite Sadat to peace talks, and riveting films such as “Golda" and “The Stronghold" are challenging the narrative of feckless leadership.

The positive outcomes of the war may also be recalled. The arms airlift inaugurated the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty presaged the recent Abraham Accords and possibly peace with Saudi Arabia. Israel recovered from the Yom Kippur War, it may be remembered, and rose to become one of the world’s strongest and most prosperous states.

Such achievements will be overshadowed, though, if the negative outcomes of the war—resentment, distrust and demoralization—persist. The vast majority of Israelis, among them many veterans of 1973, are not protesting. Some accuse the protesters of trying to topple a democratically elected government and of upholding the interests of an affluent elite. The prospect of internecine violence looms.

“The wars of the Jews are always the ugliest," commando leader Yoni Netanyahu, the late brother of the present prime minister, wrote to his parents in November 1973. “The Arabs won’t need to fight. The Jews, as usual, will destroy themselves." The challenge for Israel today, as 50 years ago, is to avoid that fate and emerge from our crisis even stronger.

Michael Oren served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2013. His books include “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" and “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East, 1776 to the Present."

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